Rome (AFP) – Hundreds of migrants stranded for days on an aid ship in the Mediterranean will be taken to Spain with the help of two Italian boats, their rescuers said Tuesday, as weather conditions deteriorate in the region.
A total 629 migrants — including pregnant women and scores of children — are currently crammed on to the Aquarius ship after being rescued off the Libyan coast on Saturday and Sunday.
With food and drink running short, their plight could last another three or four more days before they are finally able to land in Spain, said the French charity SOS Mediterranee which operates the ship.
The migrants have been at the heart of a standoff between Malta and Italy after both countries refused to allow the Aquarius to dock.
Spain’s new Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez stepped in, offering the boat safe harbour in the eastern port city of Valencia. He said there was a moral “obligation to help to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe.”
But the deteriorating weather and the extremely cramped conditions on board the Aquarius — which was built to transport a maximum of 500 — could make that journey to Valencia perilous.
“Weather conditions over the next few days are going to worsen, meaning that we can’t make the journey with everyone here aboard,” Alessandro Porro, an Italian volunteer on board, told Italian broadcaster RAI 3.
Two Italian boats have been instructed to help the Aquarius take the migrants to Spain, according to aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres.
Its doctors are helping treat the migrants, who include seven pregnant women, 11 young children and 123 unaccompanied minors.
The Aquarius had been instructed by the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Rome “to transfer 400 of the 629 refugees and migrants currently on board back to Italian Navy ships which will then head to Valencia to disembark,” MSF Sea tweeted.
The Aquarius itself would then “sail to Valencia to disembark the remaining 229 people,” it added.
According to SOS Mediterranee, the journey from Maltese waters to Valencia would take at least three days.
“The people are frightened, they’re very fragile, vulnerable and traumatised by their journey at sea, which would last another 48 hours,” tweeted MSF coordinator Aloys Vimard, who is on board the boat.
– ‘A European issue’ –
Both Italy and Malta had come under increasing international pressure to allow the migrant rescue ship to dock, and they continued to argue over who was responsible.
Italy’s far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini tweeted: “Saving lives is a duty, turning Italy into a huge refugee camp is not. Italy is done bending over backwards and obeying, this time THERE IS SOMEONE WHO SAYS NO.”
He said at a news conference on Monday: “We want to put an end to this human trafficking. So as we raised the issue for the Aquarius we will do so for all other ships.”
Despite his comments, SOS Mediterranee insisted Tuesday that it would continue its rescue activities off the coast of Libya once the Aquarius had returned from Spain.
But Salvini said his hardline stance was aimed at only foreign NGOs for the moment and an Italian coastguard ship was expected to dock in Sicily in the coming hours carrying some 937 migrants, also rescued off Libya.
– ‘Political weapon’ –
Since Sanchez announced that Spain would accept the boat, several Spanish regions have offered to take in the new arrivals.
Catalonia’s leader Quim Torra said that his region was capable of hosting a total of 1,800 refugees.
The regional leader of Spain’s Basque Country, Inigo Urkullu, said the region was prepared to take care of 10 percent of the passengers.
The mayor of Madrid Manuela Carmena said the capital could take in “20 families up to a maximum of 100 people.”
Ximo Puig, president of the Valencia region, where the boat is due to dock, called Salvini’s stance “despicable”.
“In the Italian case, turning this into a political weapon is despicable… it is clear that Europe must act more wisely, but we cannot let these people die at sea,” he said.
The International Organisation for Migration’s Director General William Lacy Swing said he was “glad Spain has stepped forward” to tackle the crisis, “but I fear a major tragedy if states start refusing to accept rescued migrants as was threatened.”
Under EU rules, migrants must apply for asylum in the European country where they first arrive.
That has put pressure on Italy and Greece, the entry points for hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia since 2015.
EU leaders in December had set an end-of-June deadline for an overhaul of rules to create a permanent mechanism to deal with migrants in the event of a new emergency.